From Woman’s Day
In 2010, Nev Schulman was the subject of a documentary called Catfish, in which he discovered the woman he thought he was in a romantic relationship with online was an entirely different person, who spent their time impersonating his online companion. In the years that followed, Schulman became a household name as the host of his own show Catfish: The TV Show on MTV, turning what can only be considered an embarrassing romantic blunder into a lucrative career and a way to help countless people with their own online relationships. He even coined the term “catfish,” which has since been entered into the Merriam-Webster dictionary with the definition, “a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes.”
On his MTV show, Schulman travels around the world helping people engaged in online relationships find the true identity of the person they’ve been talking to and making future plans with.
These days, Schulman is a contestant on season 29 of Dancing With the Stars. But new episodes of Catfish are airing on Wednesday nights, so Schulman is still hard at work tracking down internet scammers… even in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic. And now that more people are stuck at home and considering online companionship more than arguably ever before, Schulman has some tips to avoid being the victim of a virtual romance scam.
“On Catfish obviously because of the MTV demographic, we tend to focus on stories about younger people,” Schulman says. “But it’s frustrating for me because I get so many messages and emails from either the kids of or the middle aged people themselves, many of whom might’ve been married and now are divorced and single, who find themselves being approached and flirted with by these people online,” Schulman tells Woman’s Day. He says that middle aged and elderly individuals, particularly women, are often victims of what are called “romance scams,” in which they’re approached by a stranger on the internet, form a romantic online connection, and eventually are asked for money or expensive gifts before they disappear completely.
“I hear about it all the time,” Schulman explains. He says oftentimes the perpetrator’s storyline involves being a younger man overseas or a man in the military or retired from the military. They often build a connection with the victim and then say they’re going to visit and last-minute need money to buy a “plane ticket” but then never show up. “All these months of flirting and build up lead to this, and sometimes it’s not even huge amounts of money, but even $700 to buy a plane ticket, and then you never hear from them again,” he says. “And they’re doing it to countless women, so even if 10 percent of those women say yes and do it, they’re playing the numbers and odds. It’s really messed up.”
So how do you protect yourself against romance scammers, especially in a time when you’re cooped up at home and potentially looking for a connection online? “I think the best way to avoid getting taken advantage of, or catfished if you will, is really just common sense,” Schulman says. “I know it’s though because it’s so fun and exciting when you’re in these relationships and people are constantly talking to you and flattering you and flirting with you. But if you haven’t seen any definitive proof that the person is real, whether that’s a video they’ve sent you, or a picture of their ID, or best case scenario is obviously a FaceTime with them, you should always be suspicious.”
Schulman emphasizes that a healthy amount of suspicion is a good thing, not something to avoid. “I don’t know why it’s taken this long for people to feel comfortable being suspicious,” he says. “I think a lot of people feel weird or creepy when I ask if they’ve done a search or investigated the person. They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that, I trust them, and if they found out that I didn’t believe them I think that would hurt them.” But being too worried about how they’d react if they knew you double checked their identity should be less of a concern than protecting yourself online. “We just need to get to a point now where we realize, it’s your job if you’re talking to somebody on the internet to vet them and make sure they are who they say they are,” he says.
He compares doing a basic level of research on your online companions to looking into a car’s history before you purchase it used. “We have Carfax, and everyone assumes I’ll spend 40 bucks and make sure this car hasn’t been in an accident or had any issues,” he says. “So nowadays you can spend a little bit of money, and there’s all these things where you can look people up via their social media or their email or their phone number, and it’s worth it. It’s a small price to pay to avoid getting catfished.”
Some basic things you can do to see if your new online friend is real before you get too involved with them are:
Ask them to FaceTime or video chat — this is the surest way to confirm who they are.
Do a reverse-image search on the photos they send you — this will help you see if there are any other online profiles using the same photos they’re using.
Do a phone number or email search — this will show you what other profiles are connected to that email and what name the phone number is registered to.
To be on the safe side, don’t send money or gifts to people you’ve met online but have never met in person. And if you have been romance scammed by someone online, report their account so hopefully they won’t be able to do that to other people.
Watch Nev Schulman on Dancing With the Stars Monday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC and on Catfish on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. on MTV.
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